What It’s Like Having A Partner In Prison During Coronavirus

Photo by Steven Puetzer/Getty Images.
Being in a couple where one of you is in prison isn’t easy. Under ordinary circumstances, there’s the pain of separation and the logistics of negotiating a complex, often disorganised system. Coronavirus has only intensified those challenges. As the country embarks on a route out of lockdown, extreme restrictions remain in place in prisons to prevent the spread of the virus, leaving prison families trying to help their loved ones from an even greater distance.
Lisa Selby runs the compulsively scrollable storytelling and campaigning Instagram account @bluebaglife with her partner, Elliot Murawski. It's an ever-growing community that offers support and the perspectives of people incarcerated and their loved ones, alongside those who experience addiction and poor mental health. Lisa told me: "All prisons are running differently; loved ones are desperately trying to piece together rumours among themselves. In terms of plans, there seems to be a lot of policy talk and promises, with very little action."
Lacey, 21, is supporting her partner through a four years and eight months sentence. She tells me that his prison regime has completely changed – like every person in prison whose partner we spoke to for this piece, he’s now locked in his cell for 23 and a half hours a day. During that half hour he can either shower, visit the kiosk or go outside.

She's on medication for a personality disorder but not coping well. Having no end date is making it worse. If she knew [her kids] could visit in June or July, she could look forward to that. But no one can tell her anything.

"He’s bored but doing okay mentally. Physically he feels restricted – there’s not enough space in his cell to work out, which is frustrating," Lacey said. "He has a built-in phone in his cell, so calls me more than ever. However, having no visits is horrible, phone calls don’t make up for it. I want to see him and give him a hug. The last time I saw him was in January."
Ronnie*, 40, is supporting her partner of 13 months who is in a women’s prison and says she has serious concerns about her mental health. "She’s on medication for a personality disorder but not coping well. She really wants to see her kids but all visits are cancelled. Having no end date is making it worse. If she knew they could visit in June or July, she could look forward to that. But no one can tell her anything."
Serena*, 23, is supporting her partner through a 10-month sentence. "My partner has one phone call a day as well as a shower and 'exercise', which is a five-minute walk around the courtyard, which isn’t enough for mental and physical wellbeing."
Serena also fears for her partner’s mental health. "He’s struggling. He has ADHD and depression. ADHD makes him more restless than the average person so being confined 23 hours a day has a huge negative impact on his mental health. He shares the cell with three other men. The toilet is in the cell, right next to his bed, which is humiliating and degrading."
Partners’ lives have also changed. Ronnie says: "I’m worried sick. I’m staying in, waiting by the phone as I don’t want to miss her call, I never know what time it will be." Watching the news and reports about prison provides no comfort. "It’s horrible. People have died of the virus in her prison. Oh my God, my stomach sank when I realised."
Lacey has continued her university studies and job during lockdown but suffers with depression, and says: "This has made my mental health issues worse. My coping strategy is keeping so busy I don’t have time to think."
Serena has been left in a doubly difficult situation. "I can’t get any help with my children (age five and two) from family or friends because of lockdown, which is draining. My eldest has a condition that needs medication day and night. Usually his physiotherapy is done in school, so I’m doing that, along with home learning, while looking after my youngest and home. The only person who understands how much I have to juggle is my partner."

Being confined 23 hours a day has a huge negative impact on his mental health. He shares the cell with three other men. The toilet is in the cell, right next to his bed, which is humiliating and degrading.

They still speak regularly but calls are limited to 10 minutes a day, sometimes less. "We communicate through emails but his replies are delayed or don’t appear. I’ve queried this but been told they’ve been lost."
Serena’s partner was sentenced recently and her children don’t understand what's happening. "They talk to him on the phone sometimes but as he can't choose what time, sometimes they’re asleep. I wish they allowed video calls so they could see their daddy and he could reassure them better." As they can’t visit, Serena's partner worries the children will forget him.
Ronnie’s partner’s children are also affected. "The eldest knows about the virus but the youngest doesn’t – she just wants to see her mummy. It’s affecting a wide circle of people." Her partner’s access to the phone varies from day to day but regular calls are expensive. "We’re trying to come up with £50 per week to get her phone credit. It’s a lot of money."
The government has released figures for rates of infection in prisons across England but not for individual institutions. Without widespread testing, the true figure may never be known. Lacey says: "Rumours and stories fly around on prison forums [on social media] but it’s mostly hearsay." Serena fears her partner falling ill "but I take comfort from the fact he is young and healthy."
There’s a strong sense among the women that the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated existing problems for prison families. Serena explains: "When my partner was sentenced, they took him away and I was lost. There’s not enough help for families – I only found out what to do next by joining Facebook groups."
The system is hard to navigate at the best of times, and communication lacks consistency. Serena says: "He got sent to the local prison and was due to be transferred, but then lockdown happened. He keeps getting told he will be moved but he’s still there. I don’t think he should be told he’s moving unless they’re certain."
Ronnie is shocked by the conditions her partner is enduring and the prison’s lack of accountability. "The gym and library are closed. Everything that can help your mental health has been taken away. Their last meal is now at 4pm and they don’t eat [again] until 10am the following day, so they are hungry and she’s lost weight. There are only three working phones on the wing, to share between everyone. Staff promised that phones will be fitted inside cells but it hasn’t happened in eight weeks."
She’s frustrated and losing hope that staff will help her partner. "Staff don’t observe social distancing; hand sanitiser dispensers are empty; staff who were with a prisoner who died of the virus continued circulating in the prison." Ronnie continues: "My partner requested to see a mental health worker. She was told there wasn’t one available and she self-harmed." This fuelled Ronnie’s worst fears. "They tell the families they're short-staffed. I’ve started to feel like they’re using the virus as an excuse not to carry out their duty of care." Earlier this month it was reported in the press that a prison officer at Ronnie’s partner’s prison was suspended for having an affair with a prisoner. "I couldn’t believe this is happening during a crisis while they are short-staffed."
The government had planned to temporarily release low-risk prisoners during the pandemic but the reality hasn’t worked out. Serena’s partner was told he could be released early on tag. "However he’s been told now that due to home visits being needed to get a tag, this may not happen. It's hard to find out exactly what the plan is, as there are less prison staff working."
As lockdown restrictions are loosened for much of the UK, plans for those in prison aren’t clear. Figures for infections among prisoners are lower than predicted but as Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "As things stand, the government strategy in prisons rests on levels of isolation that amount to prolonged solitary confinement. It is neither sustainable nor humane. Positive steps to create space in prisons would make them more purposeful and save lives."
Until that happens, people in prison and their loved ones will continue to suffer.  
*names have been changed.

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